In a statement released to the school's students, faculty and staff, chairman Mark Epstein said the Board of Trustees voted last week to cut in half the full-tuition scholarship currently afforded every undergraduate student. The new tuition charge will affect the class entering in the fall of 2014.
"After eighteen months of intense analysis and vigorous debate about the future of Cooper Union, the time has come for us to set our institution on a path that will enable it to survive and thrive well into the future," Epstein said.
The New York City institution was founded by industrialist Peter Cooper, who hoped it would be a meritocracy open to all. The school calculates its annual tuition cost to be $38,500. The full-tuition scholarship has covered the amount for the nearly 1,000 undergraduates who attend the college's architecture, engineering or art schools.
Epstein said the school will keep admissions need-blind and provide additional scholarships depending on need, including full-tuition scholarships to all Pell Grant-eligible students.
But a vocal group of students, faculty and alumni has protested charging tuition for almost two years - including a group of students who occupied part of university building last December, where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous "right makes might" anti-slavery speech.
On Tuesday, students gathered outside the school's storied Foundation building to protest the decision.
"It's clear that the board understands the monetary costs but not the value of what having a free school is," said Joe Riley, 22, a senior in the arts school and a member of the Occupy Cooper movement. "They don't understand the necessity of equality and the complete level playing field that the meritocracy creates."
Casey Gollan, a senior in the arts school, said various groups of alumni, students and faculty who have opposed charging for tuition are now meeting to think of ways to stop the board's decision - including legal action.
"All kinds of things are already being explored," she said.
The administration has maintained that financial constraints have plagued the institution for decades, and years of stopgap measures like property sales and loans have been used to maintain the scholarship amid ever-rising costs. Last year, the school started charging tuition for graduate classes.
The institution's projected $12 million annual deficit can't be closed by budget cuts alone, said Epstein, noting health care costs are projected to rise 7.5 percent per year. He also said the institution's biggest source of cash - it owns the land beneath the Chrysler Building - will benefit from a rent increase in 2018. But, that will stay stagnant for a decade while costs and deficits continue to rise.